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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PG)

Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: A Selection Of Mystifying Exclusive Never-Before-Seen Footage; Creating The Vision - A Revealing Interview With J.K. Rowling And The Filmmakers; Raucous Interviews With The Cast Lead By Johnny Vaughan And The Shrunken Head. Conjuring A Scene - An In-Depth Look At The Making Of Key Scenes From The Film; Self-Guided iPIX Tours Into Honeydukes And Professor Lupin's Defense Against The Dark Arts Classroom. Meet The Animal Trainers From The Film In Care Of Magical Creatures; Choir Practice - Sing-Along With The Hogwarts Choir; Hogwarts Portrait Gallery - Get A Closer Look At The Various Portraits Lining The Walls Of Hogwarts Castle; Electronic Arts Game Preview; Theatrical Trailers For All Three Harry Potter Films; DVD-ROM - Wizard Trading Cards Hogwarts Timeline

WHEN Mexican film-maker, Alfonso Cuarón, was first announced as the director of the third Harry Potter instalment, The Prisoner of Azkaban, eyebrows were raised, particularly as he had no track record for handling such big budget material.

But the appointment seems like a master-stroke, for Cuarón has worked magic with the franchise, helping it to come-of-age, while adding a darker emphasis to proceedings.

This looks and feels like a Harry Potter for the older generation, one which deftly mixes its thrills and special effects, with a compelling human factor that had largely been missing from the first two films, thanks, in no small part, to the growing maturity and confidence of Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role, and to Cuarón’s ability behind the camera.

Having so expertly tapped into latter-teen anxieties in his last film, Y Tu Mamá También, the director once again gets it right for what it feels like to be 13.

Harry Potter is now older and more cynical, struggling to contain the darkness that lies within, as well as that which surrounds him.

When his family name is offended by an acid-tongued aunt, during a meal at the Dursleys (at the start of the movie), Harry wastes no time in casting a spell on her, even though it places him in breach of Hogwarts’ School policy.

But far from being castigated for his actions, Harry is welcomed back with open arms, due, in no small part, to the fact that a murderous wizard, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban prison with the intention of finding, and possibly killing, the young magician.

Once at Hogwarts, Harry finds an unexpected ally in the form of David Thewlis’s new teacher, Professor Lupin, but must run the gauntlet of the Dementors, the wraith-like Azkaban guards, now stationed at the school, who seem as keen on sapping his life force, as they are on recapturing Sirius.

The ensuing adventure finds Harry confronting the truth about his parents’ murder, as well as coming to terms with his own powers and helping them to become stronger.

But while all of the usual components are in place, such as the wonderful support from the likes of the superb Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane, as well as Harry’s friends, Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron), what makes this so special is the new-found malevolence which permeates throughout.

Cuarón imposes his striking visual style from the outset, opting to use wide-angle lenses to bring out the most in each scene. As a result, there is so much going on, you could spend hours gazing at the backdrops, while also being kept enthralled by what’s happening in the foreground.

The so-called ‘risk factor’ in bringing him in quickly turns out to be one of the most calculated gambles in recent memory.

And what’s more, Cuarón proves equally adept at juggling the action sequences, with the characterisation which is tantamount to the success of JK Rowling’s novels.

The set pieces consistently thrill, particularly when centred around the film’s exciting new creatures, such as a werewolf, the Dementors and, most strikingly, a magical half-horse, half-eagle ‘Hippogriff’, known as Buckbeak.

But they never threaten to detract from the human emotions on show, particularly in the moments between Radcliffe and Thewlis, which lend it a very strong emotional core.

If there are misgivings, the film is probably a little too long for its own good, and Oldman feels under-employed, only arriving in the latter stages. But this shouldn’t detract from an otherwise entertaining romp, that manages to stretch its appeal to a much wider age-range, while keeping its fans enthralled into the bargain.

Cuarón has conjured a genuinely crowd-pleasing movie that really ought to leave audiences spellbound.

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